Built over a three-year period from 1911-1914, the Allison Mansion now sits on the campus of Marian University in northwest Indianapolis. The home’s exterior exemplifies the Prairie School Arts and Crafts design, while the interior is more Renaissance Revival. This is probably due to the fact that the exterior and interior were designed by two different architects. James Allison and his wife, Sarah, also added formal gardens on the estate’s 65 acres. It was sold in 1936 and the grounds and mansion are now open for tours. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Allison earned his fortune through his ownership and involvement in various
companies, to include his first, the Allison Coupon Company which was founded
by his father. However, it was the
Prest-O-Lite Company that reaped him the most monetary value largely due to its
development of the first practical headlight for early automobiles. Allison’s other business investments included
the development of the Speedway suburb of Indianapolis as a type of company
town for Prest-O-Lite; the invention of the Allison Perfection Fountain Pen; the
founding, along with Carl Fisher, of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the
creation of the Allison Engineering Company which went on to develop aircraft
engines; and real estate development in Miami Beach.
In 1910, the
Michigan native and his first wife, Sarah, purchased 65 acres near the White
River. Allison then hired well-known,
local architect Herbert Bass to design a home befitting his status. However, after visiting the estate of his neighbor,
Frank Wheeler, Allison fired Bass before the mansion was completed and hired
the man who designed Wheeler’s opulent home, William Price. Allison instructed Price to spare no expense
in designing the home’s interior and it was completed in 1914 at a price of
over $2 million. Allison then utilized
the services of famed landscape architect, Jens Jensen, to design the estate’s
formal gardens, which included a greenhouse, orchard, a green performance area,
and two staircases that led down to two, spring-fed ponds and a large meadow
that now sat on Riverdale, as the estate was called, included an ornate,
two-story foyer, complete with a silver and bronze chandelier imported from
Germany, a music room in which was installed a two-story pipe organ, a marble
aviary with Tiffany stained-glass ceiling that Sarah used for her exotic bird
collection, an indoor pool in the basement, sleeping porches, a hand-carved,
walnut staircase, and a billiard room.
Price had, indeed, spared no expense.
of pneumonia in 1928, one week after his second marriage to his former
secretary, Lucile Musset. A legal battle
then ensued between Sarah, Lucile and Allison’s mother, Myra, for possession of
Riverdale, a battle which Myra eventually won.
She lived there until her death and the estate sat vacant for six years
until it was purchased by the Sisters of St, Francis in 1936, who brought
Marian College with them to the estate.
The Sisters also managed to later acquire the nearby estates of Carl
Fisher and Frank Wheeler as well.
Mansion served as the primary building for the small student body and
faculty. It housed the college’s
library, administrative offices, classrooms, art studio, chapel and convent for
the sisters. The college has since been expanded
to cover 200 acers and Allison Mansion has been restored and is now used
primarily as a special events venue for such things as weddings, receptions and
other celebratory events and houses the office of the university's president.